When I was asked to interview North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp for Lenny, I read three sentences about her and immediately said yes. It was hard to compute this woman: She ran for office for the first time in her 20s; she's a breast-cancer survivor and a fierce advocate for Native American kids. Native issues are important to me because of my heritage, my community, and my work as an actress, but they should be important to everyone. The statistics in tribal communities for poverty, suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse are some of the worst in the nation. It is a challenging arena in which to try to make progress, and Senator Heitkamp seemed like an anomaly of vision and strength. When I got her on the phone, she confirmed my awe: She is committed to fighting for Native children, and she will not stop until there is a major change.
One step in her plan started when Senator Heitkamp met Senator Lisa Murkowski at a Senate women's dinner in 2013. They discovered that they shared a strong desire to improve the chances that Native kids have to thrive. They came up with a bipartisan bill that would create a commission on Native children that would study issues facing these kids and make recommendations about how to ensure that they receive better care. Heitkamp and Murkowski then amassed a small army of supporters — including Senators Al Franken and Jon Tester, both of whom represent states with large reservations — and Heitkamp, Franken, and Tester decided to educate their colleagues in the Democratic caucus.
People started asking to come to North Dakota, to visit the reservations and see their environments firsthand. Senator Heitkamp believes that once people are aware of the situation and a human connection is established, they will feel the way that she does — that these are all our children too — and they will be compelled to help out. Her bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and she is now working on getting it passed in the House. In addition to her imperative work on Native children, we also discussed how women are a vital and necessary part of problem-solving in public service, what made her decide to run for office, and why losing a political race was more difficult than beating breast cancer.
Julia Jones: Were you interested in politics growing up, or did the desire to run for office come later in life?
Heidi Heitkamp: I remember watching the presidential primaries in 1968. I was in the eighth grade. That's the first time that I remember really paying attention. I think it was a combination of the insecurity that we all felt about the Vietnam War and about race relations in general. It was a time of a lot of turmoil and a lot of discussion. My dad's a World War II vet, and you see it through the lens of your parents, but you also appreciate what's happening in your peer group. I remember watching the California primary results and how I felt when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I'd been so young when JFK was killed, but RFK's death had a profound effect, especially coming just three months after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. I was interested in what we could do, how the country was going to progress from there.
I was always interested in public policy. I never thought I would be in an elected position. I always thought I would be the staff person, the campaign manager, whatever it might be. Kent Conrad, who was a senator from North Dakota whose seat I have now, became a really good friend and a mentor. I went to work for him. He really encouraged me to think about running for public office.